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Discussions: The Black Keys

By Andrew Bailey & Kerri O'Malley; August 13, 2012 at 8:31 AM 

ANDREW: The one and only time I saw them was Bonnaroo 2011. It was a good show, but I say that with two caveats: (1) I was drunk, and (2) I watched the show from way in the back and was distracted by the joys of people watching. That show was a pivot point for me I think. They were one of those bands that I was dying to see and then once they were right in front of me, I quickly lost interest. In fairness to the Keys, I just saw Radiohead play an arena from way in the back and I lost interest in that quickly too. But, yeah, it was a festival. They drew a big crowd, but pretty much everyone back where I was seemed mostly indifferent, oscillating between watching the show and chatting with people around them.

Since then I’ve wanted to take in a more proper show, but they’ve graduated to playing venues that I don’t have much interest in seeing them play. They played the Verizon Center, which for context’s sake is the same place the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Radiohead just played. So an arena. And maybe I’ve grown greedy, but I just have a really difficult time enjoying arena shows. So I didn’t feel like dropping the big bucks to go and see them.

KERRI: I’m also spoiled and pretty much thumb my nose when a show costs more than $15. Pretty much because I can get away with that attitude — so many excellent and even fairly popular bands are playing for that price these days. Let’s form a club!

I was hoping you’d seen them at a festival, and your description kind of confirms what I feared: that although they’re into making all of this big, loud, mainstream music and are purposefully aiming for large venues and festivals, it just might not work. In theory, I totally dig what they’re doing and respect them for trying to graduate their sound and not be pompous about who their fans are or what their “scene” is — gimme a break. But what can the Keys really bring to an arena or a festival? They’re not theatrical like Lady Gaga pop stars, not full of mystique like Jack White modern rock stars, not nostalgic or legendary like Bruce Springsteen comeback kids. Pretty much if you’re headed to a Keys show, you’re there to hear the music, but usually if you’re headed to an arena or a festival, you’re there for an experience, to say you were there when. And as we’ve been saying, the Keys are consistency, they’re not an explosive event. The mainstream will easily forget them soon…if it hasn’t already. Could this be a failed experiment that ends the band? Or will it just spit them out back into their old scene? I guess the alternative would be complete success, but I’m really not sold on that one.

ANDREW: Don’t get me started on opening a club. I live about an hour either way from DC and Baltimore, which is cool because there isn’t a week that goes by that a show isn’t available somewhere. But it’s sort of a pain in the ass dedicating two hours, at least, to traveling back and forth. It can be exhausting. I want to start a club and bring a music festival to the fairgrounds where I live (the same fairgrounds that recently hosted a festival featuring Poison and Motley Crue).

But yeah, even given the success they’ve had, I don’t see the Keys as festival or arena headliners. I see them selling out clubs in 30 seconds, but seeing them in a big venue is horribly unappealing to me, even beyond that I just don’t like those big venues to begin with.

So, before we put a ribbon around this conversation, I want to ask a question that will potentially alienate all of our readers and discredit all that stuff about how deep down I really do love The Black Keys. I have a fascination with the sort of elitism that comes with being a fan of “indie music,” where we all inherently and compulsively hate certain acts without having any tangible reason. Recently, a friend of mine was listening to Skrillex and I made a comment about how he’s become a magnet for animosity, and he just sort of shrugged and replied, “I don’t really hate any music. If I don’t like it, I just don’t listen to it.” It was one of those weird moments of clarity where it dawned one me that, holy shit, you don’t have to have a love/hate opinion about everything. I say that to ask this: are The Black Keys the Nickelback of indie rock? Like, indie kids collectively hate the ever-loving shit out of Nickelback, which is weird to me for a lot of reasons. First, it’s not like anyone holds a gun to our heads and says we need to listen to them. I guess being bitter at their success is reasonable, but they obviously appeal to plenty of people’s tastes, you know? But think about it: we loathe those guys because all their songs sound pretty much the same, right? There are other reasons, but that’s where it all stems from. And didn’t we just agree that The Black Keys do the same thing? So, like, for me, when I want to illustrate that everyone has different tastes and we should all just live in perfect harmony, I think of The Black Keys and it reminds me that, in some cases, we just aren’t all that different. Does that even make sense?

KERRI: You live on a fairgrounds? Poor boy, I hope you have a tent…haha but seriously, if we could start a club that has a location near you in the middle of DC and Baltimore and then open another location between Philly and NYC, that would be dream-team magic for me. I feel you on the travel time!

What you’re saying kind of makes sense to me, but let me pull it out here and see if I’ve got it right… First off, I have to be honest and say it’s been a long time since I thought about “indie kids” in general, and to me that term has become almost incoherent. Listening to music primarily on the internet today, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s come from where when you first click play to even have that initial prejudice, and there are so many scenes going on within independent music that it’s almost lost its boundaries anyway. For example, if you’re into independent hip-hop you probably also like some of the rap on the radio — it’s not necessarily all one or the other, especially with acts that started independently getting such huge amounts of attention as their career builds. What even constitutes “mainstream” has become kind of obscure. This applies to rock music, too, at least in my eyes. With all the small labels, self-released music, and some bigger acts like the Black Keys getting radio play, it’s not as divided of a scene as it was ten years ago, when Nickelback was all over everything.

At the risk of getting too hung up on your Nickelback reference, full disclosure: I totally owned a Nickelback record. That one that came out when I was in high school with “How You Remind Me” on it. Now I, of course, hate the fucking shit out of that record, but a part of it definitely has to do with shame at my despicable early musical tastes, when musical taste was more about having something in common with the most people possible than distinguishing yourself as an individual. That might sound cynical or what have you, but I really feel like not only has the musical landscape changed significantly over the last decade, but also that our perceptions of ourselves in relation to pop culture have completely altered, perhaps simply as a side effect of growing up or as a side effect of the internet…or a combo? So I might have to stand out and say that I think part of the reason we intensely hate bands like NB is that they’re from a time when we felt lied to, when we didn’t know what else was out there, beyond the radio. Some of those bands, like Green Day, ended up being important stepping stones when it comes to defining musical taste (nothing like an early intro to punk nihilism and humor wrapped in a radio-friendly bow), but others like NB just ended up being as empty as a Britney Spears song — there’s really nothing there behind the drama of their music. Also, in defense of the haters: how can you not hate someone with that hair?

So I think it’s more of the anger at emptiness and at a brand of music that gets away with being mindless and that’s constantly marketed to us, shoved down our throats whether it’s pop, hip-hop, rock…whatever. Bringing this back to your point, I’m not sure… does this apply to the Keys? Are you saying that while we can have different music tastes and should live in harmony, we shouldn’t have similar tastes? Cause to me that’s where hating gets nonsensical… like I said above, I think a lot of us define ourselves by what we like these days and liking something “popular” makes us seem un-hip or whatever, but if it’s good, soulful music and good music is winning, who can really be upset about that? And what’s the harm in connecting?

I may be totally misinterpreting you, correct me at will!

ANDREW: I owned that same Nickelback album, actually. I used to own a ton of embarrassing CDs and DVDs, mostly acquired as random Christmas presents that I can only assume were chosen because they were in the bestselling section. But I get what you’re saying. I think about it a lot, actually. Like, we have a bunch of writers on the BPM staff that are just entering college and even some in high school, and it blows my mind because they all have a really great appreciation for great music, “indie” or otherwise. It makes me feel old. I mean, when I was in high school, there wasn’t a Facebook or a Spotify and music websites just weren’t on anyone’s radar. I listened to the things I listened to because that’s what everyone else was listening to and my own tastes didn’t develop until well after I was out of that world (and once I had all these seemingly unlimited music discovery tools).

I think what I’m saying is that we’re all a lot more similar than we often realize. It’s almost like being on either side of a big sports rivalry, except instead of defining our allegiance by colors or cities, we’re defining them by genres and popularity and “artistic integrity.” But that’s silly when you think about it, because all anyone’s really doing is listening to what they think sounds good. And to me, it just isn’t that crazy that there’s a whole mass of people who hear in Nickelback the same things that I hear in The Black Keys. It’s just a weird parallel I’d been thinking about, because I think both bands are as similar as they are different. In this case, there’s a sort of formulaic feel to the music, but for one act it’s scolded by a certain audience, while for the other act it’s put up on a pedestal.

KERRI: I totally wish I could claim those N*SYNC albums were Christmas presents (haha). I think a lot about this kind of thing too, and I’m really glad our discussion has evolved in this direction.

I completely agree that we are more similar than we try to pretend we are and I think that is so fucking phenomenal! How much of this lifetime are we going to spend looking for connections before we realize they’re everywhere? What else is music but a way to connect with another person and, generally these days, a whole community? Sorry if it sounds like I just dropped acid right before I typed that “H,” but really…uniqueness isn’t a lie, but it’s like that saying…We’re all unique, therefore we’re all not unique. Our specific tastes, our opinions, our experiences will all differ, but ultimately we’re driven by the same things and looking for happiness.

Your sports analogy is great. I think in a sometimes overwhelming music scene where so much is being created, signposts like genre are just filtering tools we apply to find new things. But they’re ultimately meaningless, which is being illustrated so well right now with everyone being a something-slash-something genre. “Oh you’re lo-fi rockabilly meets experimental art rock, yeah?” Hilarious subversion of the whole concept of genre, since it’s actually very specific to each project. We’re not quite ready to let that concept go, but it’s definitely getting there — I think navigation is a primary reason we can’t quite detach.

Getting back to NB vs BK (go team go!), in defense of both bands, my gut reaction is to first say that I don’t think either fan base is actively considering the similar sound of the band’s material… but I have to take that back and then say I think Keys fans (and haters) do acknowledge the similar sound and openly embrace it, whereas NB fans might not. (It’s been a long time since I met a NB fan, so excuse my conjecture.) Maybe this ties back into the Black Keys’ honesty about their music that we were discussing at the very beginning. To me, the Keys just sound and are more sincere than a band like Nickelback, and it makes otherwise difficult pills to swallow like open commercialization (aka pandering) and a monolithic sound more, well, badass, for lack of a better word. The Keys have oddly made buying into the mainstream seem a bit rebellious, pretty much by being transparent and keeping their sincerity at its usual level.

By the way, I was re-reading my previous e-mail and, after hearing 3-4 NB songs on the radio today, I have to take some harshness out of that and say I don’t HATE Nickelback. I mean, I don’t want to listen to them and I don’t dig the music, but I wouldn’t really say I actively hate them or think about them outside of this Discussion at all. This seems obvious to me (the fact that I don’t actually hate them but when asked would say that I do), and maybe part of the love/hate thing is also the fact that everyone must have a strong opinion about everything at all times these days, it seems. Who’s valuing an open mind in the music community? Who’s allowing reviewers to change their minds? (Aside from us, of course, with our amazing Second Look feature.) I think about that a lot, also — about how knee-jerk our reactions to music are — and wonder what that means to us, as writers.

ANDREW: I’m always sort of proud of the crappy music I’ve owned and loved. I mean, back in high school, Linkin Park was making music that felt like it was going to stick with me for the rest of my life, you know? And I can’t sit through any of their albums now, not even for the nostalgia. But it served a purpose. It’s like when you live with roommates in a nice place because rent is getting split up and ends up being cheap, then move into a shitty one bedroom because you’re broke and have no other option, then on to a nicer place after that. That dirty little rat hole apartment might be kind of embarrassing, but it served its purpose.

I hate sub-genres. Hate them. I liked it so much better when I was a kid and everything was just rock or rap or pop. There’s a huge focus on defining things, I think, because we feel like it helps define ourselves. We all want to be unique little snowflakes, but how can you be unique when you’re listening to rock music? So you tell people you listen to lo-fi garage rock, because that disassociates you from Nickelback or whoever. I guess that’s part of what I’m saying too, is that in my mind, The Black Keys are in the same genre as a whole bunch of bands like those. They still get referred to as “indie rock,” but they aren’t. They’re just a rock band. I’ve sort of beaten a dead horse about it at this point, but I certainly think The Keys are better songwriters and make better songs, but at the end of the day, it’s all a matter of subjective tastes.

I definitely think there’s a value in knee-jerk reactions to music, but I also feel like there should be a website that reviews stuff that came out five years ago. It’s important to get your ears on stuff when it first comes out because that’s when the discussion is hot. Talking about it with friends, arguing about it on the internet… that’s part of “the experience.” But I always think people sound stupid ranting and raving about how good or bad an album is after they’ve had it for a week (and trust me, I’ve done it myself). But then, it kind of goes back to what I was saying about listening to something for a certain part of your life and then completely turning on it. There’s a huge value in those albums that are amazing for a week and then you totally forget about. Not every album can be or should be Nevermind, you know? Like Sleigh Bells’ Treats. That’s an album that dominated my 2010 and that I was listening to almost every day. But when I turn it on now, it’s almost unbearable. It’s kind of like those Linkin Park records from my high school years. I actually feel silly listening to one today. And I feel the same about Treats, for the most part. So while my knee-jerk reaction was exuberant, my well-digested reaction is almost complete disinterest. But at the same time, that was a really important record for me, even if for just a limited time. And I will say this about The Black Keys: I may be bored of them today, but five or 10 years from now, I’d be willing to bet I’ll be able to listen to any of their albums and enjoy it without feeling silly or like I should have just left it in my past.

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Listen to The Black Keys on Spotify.


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